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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published December 03 2011

Eriksmoen: Williams County named for man who surveyed it

By 1906, Alexander McKenzie and the conservative Republicans were beginning to lose control of politics in North Dakota.

The more-liberal members of the party were tired of “bossism” and resented many of the policies dictated by McKenzie. In an attempt to keep things from unraveling at the state party convention, delegates elected Erastus A. Williams to chair the convention. He was known to be a conservative but had successfully challenged the McKenzie machine several times.

With North Dakota about to become a state on Nov. 2, 1889, one of the first orders of business was to conduct elections for state offices. Because the Legislature would draw up the new laws and create the various agencies, Williams believed he could best serve the new state as a legislator. He coasted to an easy victory for a House seat in 1889 and served in the first Legislature.

The U.S. Congress created North Dakota as a surveying district on April 10. On April 25, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Williams as the state’s first surveyor general.

Williams began surveying the northwestern portion of the state – Mountrail, Ward, Flannery and Buford counties – on Aug. 1. He divided the land into subdivisions, determining the township and meridian lines for each of these counties. In 1891, the Legislature rewarded Williams by combining Flannery and Buford counties and naming it Williams County.

Williams is the only county in North Dakota, and one of the few in the nation, that is named for the person who surveyed it for the government. A previous Williams County named in his honor had been in existence from 1871 to 1883, but Williams caused its extinction when he introduced legislation creating Dunn and Mercer counties that replaced the old county. The current Williams County was reduced in size in 1910 when Divide County was created. Williams continued to work as surveyor general until 1894 when Democratic President Grover Cleveland named a replacement.

During the territorial days and the first couple of years of statehood, Williams was a faithful conservative Republican, helping the railroads and elevators expand in what is now North Dakota. By the early 1890s, he realized that profits for the large business interests often created hardships for the average farmers. To try and remedy this situation, Williams ran for the state House in 1896. He called for stricter railroad regulations and lower taxes on farm property and livestock. Williams won in a landslide and was also chosen to serve as speaker of the House.

In 1898, President William McKinley, a Republican, appointed Williams to again serve as U.S. surveyor general. He continued to survey the land in western North Dakota. It became very apparent to him that much of the “slope country,” which had a semi-arid climate, could be made much more productive through irrigation. He proposed pumping water from the Missouri and Cannonball rivers “up to the table lands and distributing it by means of reservoir systems over a great area of lands.” Many agreed, and in 1903 the North Dakota Irrigation Association was established with Williams elected president.

Williams decided that the first order of business was to get Gov. Frank White to appoint a state engineer. Despite the backing of U.S. Sen. Henry Hansbrough and some of the major newspapers in the state, White declined because money was requested from the state coffers. Williams persuaded some of the state’s major bankers to fund the position. Williams had great plans for irrigation projects along the Missouri River, but because of a lack of willingness on the part of farmers to pay for some of the costs, the only project completed was near Williston.

The irrigation association disbanded in 1906, but after years of drought in western North Dakota, Williams was asked to again serve as president of the reconstituted organization in 1922.

By 1906, the conservative wing of the Republican Party (Stalwarts) was being seriously challenged by a more liberal wing called the Insurgents, led by George Winship, editor of the Grand Forks Herald. The Stalwarts were still operating under the leadership of McKenzie, but his actions had caused dissatisfaction. The Republican State Convention was in Jamestown on July 12 and the Stalwarts, fearing liberal candidates would be chosen, got Williams elected as chairman. Williams was not always in step with McKenzie, but he was a loyal conservative. Acting as chairman, he got a full slate of Stalwarts nominated for elective offices. Later, many Insurgents joined with the Democrats, helping John Burke to become governor.

Williams finished surveying North Dakota in 1908, and in June the position was eliminated. He then turned to local politics. In April 1909, he was elected mayor of Bismarck, serving until 1913. He was also elected to the state House in 1911, 1913 and 1915.

After serving more than 40 years in various territorial, state, and city positions, Erastus A. Williams retired to his late Victorian home at 722 7th St. N. in Bismarck. He died on March 26, 1930. In 1975, his house was added to the National Registry of Historic Places.

“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.